When and how did you come to be interested in the philosophies of India and in Buddhism in particular?
During my childhood, I had read, with very keen interest, a work on Tibet which devoted long developments to Buddhism. It then became clear to me that one could acquire a form of wisdom and self-control through these teachings. I had also understood that it was possible to practice meditation, to purify oneself of negative thoughts and to acquire control of one's senses, without believing in a God or a divinity. I had finally deduced from it that Buddhism was an approach which made the economy of religion and religious beliefs.
Subsequently, a student at the Sorbonne, about thirty years ago, I attended a course in Indian philosophy. This dealt with both Brahminical philosophies and Buddhism, the emergence of the Buddha and Buddhist philosophers. By reading the Brahmanic texts of Indian philosophers, one perceives very quickly that the philosophical adversary is the Buddhist. Indian philosophy could only develop because there were these extremely rich exchanges between the philosophers of the Brahmanic tradition, on the one hand, and those of the Buddhist tradition, on the other. We cannot be interested in one without being interested in the other.
“The Buddha did not want to be seen as a mastermind. He saw himself rather as a doctor of the soul who seeks to cure the psychic, moral and mental sufferings of men. He is, in my eyes, more of a sage than a philosopher. He is somewhat similar to the confessor we knew in the XNUMXth century. The psychoanalyst also, because he is interested in what happens in the depths of the human psyche. »
I went to India for the first time at the end of the 1970s, to Sarnath near Benares, to discover the place where the Buddha had known enlightenment. I met some Buddhist monks there who were attached to a temple. A few years ago, the Indian government, with the support of the Nobel Prize in economics Amartya Sen, decided to restore the old Buddhist university of Nâlandâ, located in Bihar. It was one of the largest universities in Asia in the XNUMXth-XNUMXth century AD. It radiated throughout Asia in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, before declining and falling into ruin. Buildings have been restored and a Buddhist education has been opened in this university. My personal interest in Buddhism also stems from its philosophy of non-violence, which is also found in Jainism. Very early on, the Buddha enacted a ban on all violence and above all a ban on animal sacrifices being made in the name of religion. Buddhism has played a considerable role, along with Jainism, in the propagation of the ideas of non-violence and vegetarianism.
Who is the Buddha in your eyes?
The Buddha did not want to be seen as a mastermind. He saw himself rather as a doctor of the soul who seeks to cure the psychic, moral and mental sufferings of men. He is, in my eyes, more of a sage than a philosopher. He is somewhat similar to the confessor we knew in the XNUMXth century. The psychoanalyst also, because he is interested in what happens in the depths of the human psyche.
How did you come to write this book in 1998 entitled Buddha autobiographies ? Why this title?
I proposed this title to my editor, because the “me” is, within Buddhism, one of the main obstacles to the journey towards enlightenment. To be able to put the "me" aside is to be able to deactivate a very important obstacle. Since the Buddha himself had evoked his previous lives, we could very well imagine ourselves delivered from this self which constitutes us and determines our character and our personality. What would happen if we managed to put it aside? We could thus slip into the personality of any living being by trying to live his experiences as he lives them himself. This is the game that I indulged in in this book.
Why was Buddhism virtually wiped out of peninsular India around the XNUMXth century?
Its disappearance is generally linked to the great Muslim invasions of the XNUMXth century. I support, for my part, a different hypothesis. The warrior tribes, who arrived in India from the steppes of Central Asia, had to pass through Afghanistan, a country which was, at the time, almost entirely Buddhist. The country then contained many Buddhist temples. There were also thousands of statues scattered all over the place. Certain caves were studded with these very small statues of Buddha, which must have been for these Muslim warriors the height of idolatry. When these men, subject to the prohibition of the image, saw this proliferation of sculptures, they must have been truly scandalized. They probably did not understand that they were supports for meditation and not the representation of a God.
Is Buddhism a way out of religion?
Yes I think so. We can live a form of religiosity without God. We find this, in a way, in Stoicism, in Greece and Rome. This does not detract from the fact that there was a deification of the Buddha in the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana. The Mahayana philosophers understood well that in deifying the Buddha, they were doing so in such a way as to respond to the aspirations of the faithful. You can deify the Buddha, but that does not make him a god. Buddhism is not a devotional religion, unlike Shaivism or Vishnuism where the faithful are asked to surrender completely to God. In his sermons, Buddha emphasized that one should not consider his word as having absolute authority. We had the right to criticize her. Which is unthinkable in devotional religions.
What do you see as the future of Buddhism in the XNUMXst century?
One has the impression, today, that Mahayana Buddhism is richer and more dynamic in the West than in Asia. Unfortunately, it is disappearing from Tibet. In China, even if we observe a resurgence of this tradition, it is Confucianism which is encouraged by the Communist Party. Western Buddhism is emerging, but it is not yet clear what its characteristics will be. Thinkers like Matthieu Ricard manage to renew certain themes, to take up Western questions and to enter into contemporary debate by relying on Buddhist doctrines. In particular, he succeeded in renewing the debate on animal welfare, and on vegetarianism, by integrating doctrines from Buddhism.